WILLIE SHOEMAKER (SportsCentury) w/BONUS TRIBUTE and MEMORIAL
WILLIE SHOEMAKER (SportsCentury) w/BONUS TRIBUTE and MEMORIAL
BILL SHOEMAKER, the jockey affectionately known throughout the world as, "THE SHOE", whose life began in a shoebox and reached its zenith in the winner's circle for nearly every major prize in Thoroughbred racing, died in his sleep at his home in San Marino, California, on October 12, 2003, at age 72.
Weighing a mere 2-1/2 pounds when he was born on August 19, 1931, in the tiny town of Fabens, Texas, WILLIAM LEE SHOEMAKER was placed in a shoebox and in the oven on low heat by his grandmother to keep him warm as a make-shift incubator. SHOEMAKER eventually grew to just under five-feet tall and launched his career as a jockey in 1949, registering his first win that April at Golden Gate Fields. Only nine years later, he was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame, and on September 7, 1970, he surpassed Johnny Longden's all-time victory record with his 6,033rd victory. SHOEMAKER rode a record 8,833 winners during his 41-year career (most of them in Southern California, considered to be the most competitive circuit in America) which ended in 1990 - a mark that stood until December 1999 when his longtime friend and rival Laffit Pincay Jr., surpassed that number at Hollywood Park.
He won the Kentucky Derby four times during his career including the 1986 running aboard FERDINAND as the oldest jockey in the history of the race at age 54. His other victories in the Derby came aboard SWAPS (1955), *TOMY LEE (1959), and LUCKY DEBONAIR (1965). Other monumental triumphs in his career include five in the Belmont Stakes and two in the Preakness Stakes.
The thousands of victories and talent displayed by SHOEMAKER throughout his career, along with his quiet, competitive nature, earned plenty of accolades throughout a career that included two Eclipse Awards in 1981, one for outstanding jockey and the other the Eclipse Award of Merit and a Special Award for outstanding contributions to racing in 1976. Other honors include the 1951 George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award and 1990 Mike Venezia Award.
Five times SHOEMAKER led the nation in victories, including a then-record 485 in 1953, and he was leading jockey by purses won ten times from 1951 to 1964. SHOEMAKER had 1,009 victories in stakes races, 257 in races worth $100,000 or more, and his 40,350 mounts earned $123,375,524. "For a man his size, wearing a size 2-1/2 shoe, he was a giant,'' retired Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Delahoussaye has said.
How good was SHOEMAKER? The late Eddie Arcaro had more success in the Triple Crown, and Laffit Pincay Jr., won more races. But SHOEMAKER was, "The Greatest," and those who believe it will never be convinced otherwise. "THE SHOE" had a magic touch; while some other jockeys relied on brute strength to get horses to do what they wanted, "THE SHOE" used his hands to gently communicate with the animal and he usually got his way. He won more races than any rider who ever lived in his era and he did it with a velvet touch and graceful pace that made every race a ballet, not a charge. SHOEMAKER's riding style of sitting almost still on a horse was emulated by generations of jockeys and his former wife, Cindy, said watching him ride was ``like listening to a pretty song or reading poetry.'' SHOEMAKER rode a horse the way DiMaggio caught a fly, or Sinatra sang a ballad - with the effortless ease and grace of a guy born to do what he was doing - a natural! Watching "SHOE" ride a horse was like watching Gene Kelly dance or Gaugin paint...it was art. You had the feeling he could win the Kentucky Derby on a bull!
In addition to FERDINAND, SHOEMAKER was the regular rider of such racing greats as SWAPS, SWORD DANCER, DAMASCUS, ACK ACK, SPECTACULAR BID and JOHN HENRY, who were all voted Horse of the Year. But it was SWAPS who remained special to SHOEMAKER. "I always had a soft spot in my heart for SWAPS," SHOEMAKER said, according to the New York Times. "He was the first great horse I ever rode". SHOEMAKER also brought out the best in such greats as GALLANT MAN, GUN BOW, BOLD BIDDER, ROUND TABLE, PROVE IT, EXCELLER, FOREGO, CANDY SPOTS, JAIPUR, GAMELY and CICADA. SHOEMAKER, who considered his victory aboard OLDEN TIMES in the 1962 San Juan Capistrano Handicap his finest, won the Santa Anita Handicap eleven times, Hollywood Gold Cup, the Hollywood Derby, and Santa Anita Derby eight times each, the Blue Grass Stakes six times, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup four times.
The late and legendary turf writer Red Smith gave an apt summation of "THE SHOE's" abilities in the saddle in a chapter titled, "Willie Shoemaker" from his book, "The Red Smith Reader. "If BILL SHOEMAKER were six feet tall and weighed 200 pounds, he could beat anybody in any sport...standing less than five feet and weighing 96 pounds, he beats everybody at what he does...and pound for pound, he has to be the greatest living athlete".
After a cross-country tour during his final year riding to exhibit his skill to fans that had never seen him before, "THE SHOE" embarked on a training career. He sent out his first winner on June 30, 1990, and saddled his first Grade I winner when ALCANDO (Ire) won the 1991 Beverly Hills Handicap at Hollywood Park. SHOEMAKER was involved in many spills during his racing career but none so horrific as a car accident that left him paralyzed in April 1991. Despite being paralyzed in all four limbs and restricted to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, SHOEMAKER returned to training and scored more Grade I successes with FIRE THE GROOM in the 1991 Beverly D. Stakes (G1) and DIAZO in the 1994 Strub Stakes (G1) until 1997 when his body could not physically stand it any longer. Still, he came to the track on a regular basis, served as a spiritual leader and confidant to a younger generation of riders, and kept in touch with old friends. He did his damnedest to keep his chin up and flash the tight little smile that found its way into countless scrapbooks.
During his career, SHOEMAKER always made time for fans, signing autographs and posing for pictures. Kids loved him, because he almost seemed like one of them: all 4' 11", 100 pounds of him. "I knew the last couple of years he was having problems," retired Hall of Famer Eddie Delahoussaye told the Associated Press. "SHOE never let on. He was a quiet guy; he kept a lot of things to himself. He never complained." Retired jockey Chris McCarron, also a Hall of Fame member and past general manager of Santa Anita Park, fondly recalled SHOEMAKER. "He was one of the greatest human beings I have ever had the pleasure of knowing in my life," McCarron said. "Forget about his ability to communicate with horses, his compassion for people was second to none."
SHOEMAKER, who could arguably be called America's most famous jockey and horse racings greatest ambassador will be sorely missed. He was a great person on and off the track; a gentleman at all times and a credit to his sport. He was idolized by everyone: bettors, other jockeys, owners, trainers and fans alike. SHOE was one of the few people in racing recognized wherever he went - he was one of those people that whatever he put his mind to, he succeeded at. He was a true ambassador to the sport. He liked to have a good time, but he took racing seriously and his skill as a jockey was unmatched. Racing has truly lost a giant.
The late Jim Murray, a longtime Los Angeles columnist, was to sportswriting what SHOEMAKER was to race-riding - an artist. On the eve of SHOEMAKER's retirement in 1990, Murray wrote, "Horses everywhere should be in mourning. They are losing their best friend." And so now has racing.
A two-hour one-of-a-kind tribute to racing's most recognizable face - the Hall of Fame rider, WILLIE SHOEMAKER consists of a 45-minute documentary covering "THE SHOE's" entire racing career to start things off and almost 85 more minutes of supporting mini-segments of rare footage plus a final farewell at his memorial service ceremony held in the Santa Anita winner's circle where friends, family and fans from all over gathered to share fond memories and tears of the man they all loved...the great WILLIE SHOEMAKER.
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